How we remember Dragutin Surbek; immense powers of concentration (Photo: courtesy of the late Zdenko Uzorinac)
by Ian Marshall, Editor
It is with great sadness that the death of Croatia’s Dragutin Surbek is announced; he passed away on Sunday 15th July.
Born in Zagreb on Thursday 8th August, he was 71 years old.
Immense powers of concentration, sitting in a darkened room before a match started, Dragutin Surbek, his playing style, the high level of fitness made him not only a national hero but a hero wherever he played; the Chinese named him the Zagreb Tiger. Alway he gave his utmost; he never believed that any point was ever lost.
Renowned throughout the sporting world, Dragutin Surbek endured a somewhat difficult childhood, his father was killed in a car accident when he was only seven years old; he never lived to see his son become a sporting star.
Although advised by many, notably in the national team by Dusan Osmanagic, Dragutin Surbek very much taught himself to play, supreme fitness and fearsome forehand; he won his first ever title in 1960 when succeeding a local Cadet Boys’ Singles competition. He won a cup full of table tennis balls, the prize remaining for the rest of his life in a place of honour amongst the many trophies won.
Notably, at the Balkan Championships in 1964 he started to attract attention, his athletic style of play caught the eye but it was in 1968 when 22 years old that he made the major breakthrough. A complete outsider, he won the Men’s Singles title at the European Championships in Lyon, beating the Hungarian defender Janos Börzei in the final; so physically demanding was the match that Janos Börzei had to be carried from the hall, totally physically drained.
“Very sad news for Croatia and whole table tennis community. He was my idol and one of the greatest sportsman in Croatia. His fighting spirit and working habits were outstanding. I learned a lot from him especially during the preparation for the Olympics in Barcelona. He was 46 years old that time but he was practising even more then me. His forehand was brilliant. He had great sense for humor and I really enjoyed time spending with him. He was a real champion and his nickname “ Tiger from Zagreb” suited him perfectly! Rest in peace Champion.” Zoran Primorac
It was the win to ignite a remarkable career. Overall at the European Championships, he won 22 medals (five gold, five silver, 12 bronze), at the World Championships (two gold, two silver and 10 bronze), the pinnacles arguably when he won the Men’s Doubles title at the 1979 World Championships in Pyongyang with Anton Stipancic and, in 1983 in Tokyo, when partnering Zoran Kalinic.
Notably, in addition, he won 112 titles at open international tournaments (42 Men’s Singles, 32 Men’s Doubles, 4 Mixed Doubles, 34 Men’s Team).
Equally, Dragutin Surbek enjoyed success as a member of the Vjesnik Club in Zagreb. In 1973, 1974 and 1976, he was pivotal to the victory gained in the Europe Club Cup of Champions (now the European Champions League).
The records are seemingly endless but one stands out above all others, one in which he may well be a world record holder. He represented Yugoslavia on 503 occasions, later between 1992 and 1995 he represented Croatia on 15 occasions.
“Dragutin Surbek was a great ambassador for table tennis; the manner in which he played demonstrated that our sport was athletic and exciting. A man of the highest integrity, his fighting qualities became legendary, most importantly the way he conducted himself was an example to all; he was a sportsman in the very best sense of the word. It was my privilege to have played against him in the German Second Division when he played for Esslingen. He has passed away but he lives long in the memory.” Thomas Weikert, ITTF President
An icon of the sport, Dragutin Surbek demonstrated the very best qualities of sport, at the 1995 World Championships, he was awarded the Richard Bergmann Fair Play Trophy; in every possible respect, always he set an example to all.
Married to Jelena, Dragutin Surbek leaves two sons, Zeljko who pursued tennis and Dragutin who followed in his father’s footsteps; our deepest condolences, our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.